Read Closer than the Bones Online

Authors: Dean James

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Closer than the Bones

Table of Contents

Closer Than the Bones

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine
Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven
Chapter Twelve
Chapter Thirteen
Chapter Fourteen
Chapter Fifteen
Chapter Sixteen
Chapter Seventeen
Chapter Eighteen
Chapter Nineteen
Also by Dean James
About the Author

Closer Than the Bones

A Deep South Mystery (#2)


Dean James


This e-book is licensed to you for your personal enjoyment only.

This e-book may not be sold, shared, or given away.


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the writer’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.


Closer than the Bones

Copyright © 2001 by Dean James


E-book ISBN: 9781625173218




No part of this work may be used, reproduced, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without prior permission in writing from the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.


NYLA Publishing

350 7
Avenue, Suite 2003, NY 10001, New York.


In loving memory of some very special women: my maternal grandmother, Myrtle Williams Breedlove; my paternal grandmother, Leola Rosamond James; her beloved sister, my great aunt, Bennie Rosamond Searcy; and my paternal great aunts, Dottie James Carrithers, Belle James Caffey, and Anna Mae James Williams.

Thanks to all of you for helping make Ernie who she is.


As usual, a number of people assisted with the writing of this novel, offering valuable input, taking time out of very busy schedules to read and critique. I wish to thank them publicly for never failing to be there when I need them.

Megan Bladen-Blinkoff, Julie Wray Herman, and Patricia R. Orr read the manuscript in various stages and offered advice. A writer couldn’t ask for a more supportive critique group.

Kaye Davis, crime-scene expert, once again generously offered me the benefit of her experience to answer questions about fingerprints and other forms of trace evidence.

Deputy Wayne Wells (aka Cousin Wayne) of the Madison County (Mississippi) Sheriff s Department repeatedly answered questions about how a sheriff’s department in Mississippi goes about investigating a murder.

Henry Lackey (aka Uncle Henry)—lawyer, judge, and Southern gentleman—once again answered questions of procedure, helping me head in the right direction.

Nancy Yost, my agent, answered questions about some fine points relating to rights.

Any errors or inaccuracies of fact and procedure are the author’s responsibility, where he either forgot to ask a question or else bent the facts for his own literary purposes.

Finally, thanks yet again to the fine team at The Overmountain Press who have worked to make Silver Dagger a success, particularly Sherry Lewis (aka Eagle Eye), who is the most meticulous editor I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. It’s great to be part of such a family!

Chapter One

You don’t need a license to be nosy. Besides, when you’re sixty, unmarried, and retired, everybody thinks you have nothing better to do, anyway, than poke your proboscis into other people’s business.

I just happen to get paid for it. Even though I don’t do it for the money.

I’m not a licensed private detective. I’ve never even bothered to find out what you have to do, in the great state of Mississippi, to become one. The kinds of problems I like to tackle are usually best solved with a little discreet probing, here and there, asking questions of the right people at the right time. With a network of friends, relatives, and former students like mine, which reaches all over the state and beyond, in positions high and low, I can usually find out what I need to with a phone call or two.

I haven’t gotten around to renting any kind of office, though I’ve had my eye on one of the old buildings on Main Street in Tullahoma. I think it has the right kind of ambience for what I do.

I think of myself as a problem solver, first and foremost, and word of mouth is my best advertisement. For the time being, if someone wants to talk to me about taking on a problem, I simply invite the potential employer to my house. It’s a bit of a drive from Tullahoma, about fifteen miles, but I’d much rather have the first interview on my own turf. In exceptional circumstances, I’ll go to someone else’s home or office to talk things over, but today I was glad that I had insisted she come to me.

I’m not in the habit of slapping potential employers. Especially when the person wanting to hire me comes from a very old and established family and is reputed to have enough money to buy the entire state of Mississippi and have change left over. But nothing puts my back up faster than someone who considers most of the human race beneath her.

Mary Tucker McElroy had a good fifteen or so years on me, which put her around seventy-five. The years had etched her face without mercy, and her mass of hair—burnished a deep copper, streaked here and there with gray, and gathered in a loose large chignon—did little to soften what age had wrought. Cold blues eyes, on a level with mine, examined me as the silence stretched out.

I stood, meeting her gaze without flinching, refusing to let her intimidate me. I spent nearly forty years teaching senior English in the public school system in Tullahoma, and there are few people on this earth I can’t stare down.

“Thank you, Miss Carpenter,” Mary Tucker McElroy said, “for agreeing to see me on such short notice. Though I really would have preferred to talk to you at my home.” Her right hand, covered in a dazzling array of rings, fluttered in irritation as she eased her six-foot frame into a chair, then arranged her shawl around her shoulders to her satisfaction.

“I regret the inconvenience of having you come here, Miss McElroy,” I responded, my voice firm, “but here, at least, we have absolute privacy. When we talked earlier, you kept harping on the fact that the matter you want to discuss is very sensitive.”

“I suppose it’s of no consequence,” she said, “though I’m not very fond of driving myself these days.”

That I could well understand. I had been watching out the kitchen window as an ancient, but well-preserved, Buick had inched its way up the hill toward my house, off the two-lane highway. Several cars, unable to pass because of the incline leading up to where my driveway connects with the highway, had accelerated roughly the moment the Buick and its driver were safely out of the way. I just knew that Miss McElroy and her creaky old car had never gotten above thirty on the drive out from Tullahoma.

“Despite the inconvenience, I’m pleased that you could see me on such short notice,” Miss McElroy said, though judging by her tone she couldn’t imagine my doing otherwise. The McElroys of Idlewild don’t wait for anyone to leap at their slightest command.

“I have no pressing matters at the moment,” I said in my most gracious tone. No sense in letting her get the upper hand, just because she might employ me.

“Your references are excellent,” she said. Her eyes roamed around the room, and her hands relaxed in her lap. Though my house is not of antebellum vintage like hers, it is substantial and impressive in its own way—and one of the reasons that I had insisted she come to me. She now had a better sense of whom she was dealing with, and that should reassure her.

Ever since she had called me yesterday, I wondered who on earth might have given my name to so venerable a personage. Mary Tucker McElroy was not known to mix much with the locals, even though she had been born and reared here. I couldn’t imagine what kind of problem she might want me to solve for her.

“Who recommended me?” I said. “If you wouldn’t mind my asking.”

“I have known your cousin, Henrietta McLendon Butler, for many years, and she speaks highly of your abilities in handling difficult situations.”

I never knew my cousin moved in such rarified circles. “I must remember to thank dear Retty the next time we chat.” Retty, whose veins ran with vinegar, had probably found a soul mate in this aristocrat.

Miss McElroy sniffed; my flippancy did not amuse her. “She also happened to mention that, despite your lack of manners on occasion, you are eminently suited to handle the type of problem I find myself confronting.”

I could have shown her the door then and saved myself a lot of grief, but I itched to know what kind of problem Miss McElroy needed someone like me to solve. I did my best to keep my temper in check.

She sniffed again. I resisted the urge to offer her my handkerchief.

She allowed a small smile to crease her mouth, only for a moment, and I figured I had probably passed some test.

“What is the problem you’re confronting?” I asked.

Miss McElroy regarded her hands for a moment before she spoke. “You are aware of my patronage of Southern belles lettres.” She paused.

Any literate Mississippian (and there are a lot more of those than folk outside the Magnolia State realize) could tell you about the McElroy Young Writers Prize, given annually to the most promising high school senior in the state. Then there was the McElroy Visiting Professorship at Ole Miss, which funded a writer-in-residence program at one of our best-known universities. Not to mention the occasional photograph in newspapers around the South, through which we could follow Miss McElroy’s hobnobbing with literary celebrities like Eudora Welty, our own national treasure; Lee Smith; Pat Conroy; Anne Rivers Siddons; and the late Willie Morris, to name just a few.

I inclined my head. If she sniffed again, I was going to recommend that she consult an allergist.

“You are also no doubt aware,” she continued, “that several times a year I invite various of my proteges to Idlewild. I offer them the opportunity to meet persons who might be helpful to them in their careers as writers. I also provide an environment in which they are free to explore their art without fear of mundane frustrations. At Idlewild they may seek the fulfillment of their potential while living in an atmosphere of intellectual stimulation and encouragement.”

Despite the fact that she sounded like she was reciting a promotional brochure, I had to acknowledge the truth of what she had said. Though few outside the world of belles lettres were ever invited inside the portals of Idlewild, the house itself was a well-known landmark.

“You’re certainly to be commended for your services in the cause of Southern literature over the years.” I managed a bland smile.

Though her eyes narrowed, Miss McElroy otherwise ignored my little barb. “Next week I shall again play hostess to such a group, and I require some expert assistance during the two weeks that they will be staying at Idlewild.”

I waited, resisting the impulse to tell her that I didn’t do windows.

“With one exception, this same group was here with me six months ago, during the Christmas season. Something happened then which caused me great distress.” She paused.

A memory stirred. I had spent Christmas in Houston, with my cousin Gerard McLendon, his daughter Maggie, and her fiance, but when I came home just after New Year’s, I heard something about a young woman who had died while staying at Idlewild. There had been a brief article in the paper, then nothing more.

“One of your guests drowned, I believe?” I frowned, trying to remember. “The paper said very little about it.”

Miss McElroy nodded. “The editor of the local paper is one of my former proteges.”

Maybe I should also mention that the current sheriff of our county is a distant cousin of Miss McElroy’s. No wonder few details about the accidental drowning were made public.

“What does all this have to do with what you need me to do, Miss McElroy?”

For a moment, the mask of majestic indifference slipped, and I could see the fear of an elderly woman beneath it. She was afraid of something, and that made me warm to her, just a bit. It was the first time she had looked completely human since she had walked in my door fifteen minutes earlier. “I want you to be there with me while these people are at Idlewild because I want you to figure out which one of them is a murderer.”

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